By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
THERE WAS LITTLE PRESS FANFARE when Najee Ali surrendered in court on August 18. Soon after that, the ex-Crips gang member turned grass-roots leader — loved and hated for pushing human-rights issues and drumming up frequent media coverage — quietly left Los Angeles to begin serving a four-year sentence for witness tampering in Tehachapi State Prison in Kern County.
Longtime friend Marian “Fi Fi” Locke was shocked, particularly since Ali was Locke’s guest at this year’s NAACP Image Awards and never divulged to her that he was going to prison. They spoke the evening of August 17. “I asked him why he hadn’t come to the African Marketplace. He said he was busy with other things,” Locke recalls. She learned of Ali’s incarceration from her mother in Chicago, who read it in the papers.
But the flurry of media coverage two weeks ago missed an underlying tale about the convoluted case against Ali, which reverberates as his supporters and detractors continue to wonder how the well-known civic figure landed in prison.
His downfall began with an alleged 2007 road-rage accident involving his daughter, Jasmin Eskew, 19. According to Eskew’s attorney, Anthony Willoughby, Askew passed four Harley-Davidson bikers on the freeway, who then rode close around her and “flipped her the bird.” Eskew crashed into one biker, Kevin Zeirdon, who suffered abrasions but appeared to be recovered at a pretrial hearing over the summer.
Eskew was charged with attempted murder for running into Zeirdon, but the charges were downscaled to assault with a deadly weapon. (Zeirdon’s wife, Lori, has posted on her Web site, http://socalmom.spaces.live.com, photos of his wounds, updates about his recovery and pictures of him celebrating his birthday on August 23.)
Ali’s ill-fated role in this weird drama began on January 17, 2008, outside a courtroom, where biker witnesses had testified against his daughter. One of the bikers wore a black leather jacket with a patch that read: “I’m having a beautiful day. Watch some bitch fuck it up.” Eskew’s attorney, Willoughby, says he then asked Najee Ali to snap a photograph of the biker, and his jacket, outside the courtroom.
At that point, prosecutors allege that Ali tried to bribe the biker not to testify against his daughter. Ali says he merely begged him for “mercy for my daughter.” But according to prosecutors, Ali told biker Zeirdon that he’d give him “a check for an unspecified amount and a new motorcycle” if Zeirdon would “forget a few things.”
Willoughby scoffs, “The idea of Najee bribing someone when everyone knows he doesn’t have any money is ludicrous. ... What did he offer [the bikers]? That the press would come down and write an article about them?”
TO HIS FRIENDS AND EVEN some of his enemies, it’s easy enough to envision the chatty, effusive activist Ali merely asking for mercy. Seeking “mercy” was, in fact, an Ali catchphrase: In January 2007, Ali went on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes to plead for mercy for Brandy, the pop diva who caused a fatal car crash in 2006, months before his own daughter’s car-crash troubles began. On Fox, Ali managed to convince conservative host Sean Hannity that it was a civil case.
The D.A.’s bribery case against Ali was not reported by Los Angeles media until Ali was about to be sent to Tehachapi prison. The initial Los Angeles Times scoop was filled with holes, and the article set off a confused — and inaccurate — reaction.
Many Ali critics were left believing that Ali was in desperate straits and had fallen into bribery because his daughter’s car crash had resulted in a fatality. It hadn’t. People were confusing Eskew’s minor crash with a fatal crash three weeks later in Upland, which, ironically, killed biker Chris Chavez, one of the four bikers riding with Zeirdon earlier, when Zeirdon was hit by Eskew.
Soon after that, other media stories rushed to paint Ali as a man who seemed to be reeling out of control.
On August 21, the Los Angeles Sentinel ran a front-page story that incorrectly stated that Ali had disrupted a press conference by Los Angeles City Councilman Bernie Parks. (A video later showed it was Parks who tried to speak at a conference arranged by Ali.) The Sentinel article prompted a sympathetic journalist, DeBorah Pryor, who’s never met Ali, to issue a statement, saying, “I am embarrassed, as a journalist, by community newspapers who have chosen to put such an ugly ‘spin’ to [the Ali imprisonment] tragedy.”
The next day, Betty Pleasant, in a column in the Los Angeles Wave, reported that the media silence on Ali’s troubles had been engineered by Ali (full disclosure: this reporter learned of the bribery allegations off the record and did not write about them). But as Pleasant wrote, “There is no way in hell that Najee’s going to prison would not be a major news story.”